Well-known design/HCI guru Don Norman has a good, provocative article up at his site called "Technology First, Needs Last." He begins:
I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when
it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially
useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. I reached this
conclusion through examination of a range of product innovations, most
especially looking at those major conceptual breakthroughs that have
had huge impact upon society as well as the more common, mundane small,
continual improvements. Call one conceptual breakthrough, the other
incremental. Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual
breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs,
especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the
design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen.
The following gives the gist of the article, I think: "grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible" rather than because of design research into people's needs. "Major innovation comes from technologists who have little understanding
of all this research stuff: they invent because they are inventors."
Norman's article reminded me of an essay by philosopher of technology Don Ihde called "The Designer Fallacy and Technological Imagination." It's not online as far as I know. I'm quoting from Ironic Technics, a short book that includes this and three other essays.
Here is the abstract of Ihde's essay:
Most literary critics have abandoned the notion that the meaning of a
text lies in the intention of the author and have called this the
“intentional fallacy.” I hold that there is a parallel found in many
interpretations of technology design and call it the “designer
fallacy.” This chapter, through examining a wide series of historical
technology designs, deconstructs the utility of a simple
designer-plastic material-ultimate use model and suggests that one must
take into account unintended uses and consequences, the constraints and
potentials of materiality, and cultural contexts, which often are
complex and multistable. I outline a complex, interactive account of
The argument may be a little clearer in these excerpts:
In simple form, the "designer fallacy," as I shall call it, is the notion that a designer can design into a technology its purposes and uses. …
While it may be the case that some technologies have come into being and performed as "intended" by their designers (I admit, I can think of none which have served solely in this way), there would seem to be none which can not be subverted to other, to unintended, or unsuspected uses and results. …
in spite of language concerning designer capacity in textbooks — recognizably there in engineering, architecture and other design textbooks — I am attempting to show that the design situation is considerably more complex and less transparent than it is usually taken to be. Both the designer-materiality relation, and the artifact-user relations are complex and multistable. While it is clear that a new technology, when put to use, produces changes in practices — all of the examples show that — these practices are not of any simple "deterministic" pattern. The results are indeterminate but definite, but also multiple and diverse. Moreover, both intended results and unintended results are unpredictable in any simple way, and yet results are produced.
Ihde is making a different point from Norman, but it seems to me that
they have a similar theme — basically to show the contingency of design on other factors, to an extent not often acknowledged. To be clear, both are writing about the
design of wholly new inventions or new categories rather than
incremental designs. They're not talking about something more routine like a web site design.
To make this more concrete, take the example of the telephone (cited in both essays). Norman's point is that the telephone wasn't invented in response to research into people's needs; it was invented because the technology was ready. Ihde's point is that when the telephone was invented, the inventor had a different use in mind than what later happened:
Here the designer intent was for an amplifying device capable of transmitting a voice over distance, and intended as a prosthetic technology for the hard-of-hearing (Bell's mother)… the party line on which all the neighbors 'chatted' was not foreseen, let alone the subsequent telephone wiring of early 20th century America.
I don't think either writer is arguing against the conventional practice of design or design research, but rather suggesting that people keep in mind the many other factors that affect technology design and use. Ihde:
the design process must be seen to be fallibilistic and contingent. Some worry that this recognition may be demotivating — but it could also be a call for a more cooperative, mutually co-critical approach as well.